Go online to buy a gift, e-mail a friend or sell a stock, and chances are you'll click on a piece of Masayoshi Son's empire. You won't know it--and you probably don't know him--but that's O.K. by Son. Soft-spoken, quick to smile, often cloaked in a slightly rumpled golf sweater, Masa Son is the unlikely man who would be King of the Internet. He has a 300-year plan--yes, that's a 300-year plan--to invest in so many companies on the Web that no matter what country you're in, whether you're looking for a broker or a bouquet of flowers, a car or a doctor, you'll have to enter his realm.In a world where Microsoft is under attack for it, and America Online is envied for it, size matters. And today, nobody owns more Internet real estate than Son. His Tokyo-based holding company, Softbank, has a stake in more e-businesses in more countries than any other cyberprospector out there. Yahoo? Softbank is the largest single investor, with more than 23%. PeoplePC, the $24.95-a-month service that offers a free computer and online access, is a Softbank-affiliate. So is Webvan, the online grocer whose recent IPO soared more than 60% on day one. And so on, to the tune of more than $40 billion in about 130 companies, or by various estimates about 10% of the firms that do business on the Web.
In other words, Son isn't some dot.com gold prospector who made a lucky bet. He's a messiah for a new commercial order based on e-capitalism. Our 300-year plan is the long-term structure we need to fit our goals, deadpans the 42-year-old Netrepreneur. Long horizons change your priorities. For his acquisitive energy and vision, Masayoshi Son is our Asian newsmaker of the year.
Softbank's basic plan is simple: invest early and often. By buying more tickets in the e-commerce game than anyone else, the company improves its chances of winning the lottery--even if there's a massive shakeout. In effect, Citizen Son is establishing the world's first virtual conglomerate. He wants to be the patriarch of a loose but fiercely loyal network of companies that span the globe, feeding each other and starving the competition.
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Son calls his empire an Internet zaibatsu. It's a reference to the pre-World War II forerunners of a corporate form whose modern iterations are better known as keiretsu, those vertically integrated manufacturing and trading cartels that gave Japan Inc. its fearsome reputation in the 1980s. Son doesn't want to own his companies outright, or even to run them. He aims to gain implicit control with a 20% to 30% stake in each, and to build a web of mutual cross-investments with sales, marketing and supply ties. I want us to be No. 1 in every area, says Son. In five years, he expects the Softbank family to grow to 780 companies around the world. Son's ambitious plan seems to be working. Yahoo!, E*Trade and Geo-Cities, among others, are not only dominant among U.S. customers, but they lead a long list of Softbank companies that account for more than 90% of all Internet commerce in Japan. Indeed, as the world's second largest economy has caught on to the power of the Net in the past year, Softbank's stock has soared. In market-capitalization terms, the company is now among Japan's top 10. Softbank has also landed in Europe, establishing joint ventures with Vivendi in France and News Corp. in Britain. Rupert Murdoch is among Son's growing legion of high-flying fans.
Son's grand vision of the world's Internet future has been gestating since he was a very determined little boy in Kyushu, Japan. Born of Korean heritage in a place with little tolerance of foreigners (particularly Koreans), Son has fought the battles of an outsider all his life. He left for the U.S. when still in high school, graduated from the University of California at Berkeley with an economics degree and, upon his return to Japan, insisted on using his Korean surname, Son, instead of Yasumoto, the Japanese name his parents had taken.
By 1980 he had already made his first million selling a design for an electronic translator to Sharp Corp. In 1981 he founded Softbank. It wasn't until after he signed a deal in 1993 to represent hardware maker Cisco Systems in Japan that Son's Internet vision fell into place. When you have the railroad being laid, you can see the train, you start to imagine the passengers and you know there will be department stores going up around the station, he says. I had a feeling this was going to be big.
Always the outsider, Son didn't have much of a Silicon Valley Rolodex in 1995. But he did have several billion dollars to spend, the money practically handed to him by Japanese investors desperate for promising companies in which to put money. So he started shopping, scooping up the trade show group that organizes Comdex ($800 million), the computer industry's biggest convention, and then Kingston Technology, a memory board maker ($1.5 billion). After a dinner in New York with mega-dealmaker Ted Forstmann, Son bought Ziff-Davis Publishing, producer of PC Week, for $2.1 billion.
Since then, it's as if Son & Co. trained a firehose on Silicon Valley and pumped in a steady stream of cash. Softbank recently opened an incubator for start-ups called Hotbank. Hundreds of applications pour in each week, and out come the announcements of new Softbank allies: PeoplePC, Webvan, Global Sports, InsWeb. Softbank's rivals can take some solace in knowing that Son's mistakes have been spectacular. He wasted billions on Ziff-Davis, which he is now trying to sell. Kingston was unloaded at a loss and some of his start-ups went south. Son would argue that these failures represent the price of admission. If you don't play, you can't win. And in the end, only the best will survive. Perhaps to remind himself how tough the future world will be, Son practices his golf game at home, in an electronic range that reproduces the most difficult competitive conditions, including wind and rain. Anything to be No. 1.
With reporting by Donald Macintyre/Tokyo and Michael Krantz/San Francisco